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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Twenty Epics edited by David Moles and Susan Marie Groppi

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"Two Figures in a Landscape Between Storms" by Christopher Rowe
"Cup and Table" by Tim Pratt
"Have You Any Wool" by Alan DeNiro
Image"The End of the Road for Hybeth and Grinar" by Rachel McGonagill
"The Rose War" K. D. Wentworth
"Choose Your Own Epic Adventure" by Marcus Ewert
"The Creation of Birds" by Christopher Barzak
"The Rider" Meghan McCarron
"The Dinner Game" by Stephen Eley
"The Book of Ant" by Jon Hansen
"The Muse of Empires Lost" by Paul Berger
"Five Hundred and Forty Doors" by David J. Schwartz
"Life Sentence" by Sandra McDonald
"A Short History of the Miraculous Flight to Punt" by Jack Mierzwa
"Bound Man" by Mary Robinette Kowal
"Smitten" by Zoë Selengut
"The Last Day of Rea" by Ian McHugh
"Hopscotch" by Yoon Ha Lee
"A Siege of Cranes" by Benjamin Rosenbaum
"Epic, The" Scott William Carter

"Epics have lost their charm," is the back cover blurb to Twenty Epics edited by David Moles and Susan Marie Groppi. "There was a time when you finished an epic. When an epic left you feeling not discontent and exhausted, but joyous, melancholy, rejuvenated, satisfied—left you feeling that you were a better person for the experience. Twenty Epics will bring that feeling back. In ten thousand words or less." There are some fine stories in this anthology, and even the ones that weren’t to my particular liking do show a great effort at originality. In this collection, there is a little something for everyone.

The first selection is a flash piece by Christopher Rowe, "Two Figures in a Landscape Between Storms." The two figures are a man and a woman. The man is obviously a warrior, but I was unable to determine the woman's role in the "story." Quote marks around "story" because I’m not sure it qualifies as one. At four hundred words, it's pretty much all description until the final line. There’s hardly any plot here, but this piece succeeds at casting epic images in my mind, which I assume was Rowe’s intent. This was a good opener to set the tone for this anthology.

Tim Pratt dishes up a real treat in his "Cup and Table." The Cup refers to the Holy Grail and the Table to the secret organization on a quest to find it. Once they've found the Grail, the Table believes they will be able to locate god and ask him the fundamental deist question: Why did you create the world and walk away from it?

As a young boy, Sigmund's dream was to be a superhero, but as he grows up and realizes the impracticality of that, he settles on becoming a spy, which brings him into the services of the Table. His "superpower" is the ability to not only see into the past, but to occasionally travel to it. His boss, the Old Doctor, has facilitated this talent by giving him massive amounts of cocaine and methamphetamine to snort until his nasal cavities are ravaged, and he’s often adrift in time. Sigmund has three teammates: Carlotta, a witch siren who dates men in the anteroom of Hell she travels to via a tarnished brass elevator in the Old Doctor’s office; Ray, a human phage, who descends to crush-depths of the Pacific Ocean to find the last fragment of the map that will lead them to the Grail—there he devours the bioluminescent beings of infinite sadness guarding the map, and afterwards he can’t stop sweating purple ink and taking long, contemplative baths in salt water; and finally there’s Carlsbad, a fellow with no facial features who has tarry, black, reflective skin and is the embodiment of pure evil. He’s the nice guy of the bunch. To this colorful cast, add the New Doctor, a willowy brunette who kills the Old Doctor to usurp power and, after taking the elevator back from Hell, fornicates with Sigmund because if sex isn’t an antidote to death, it is an adequate placebo.

I presented the above examples in more or less the author’s own words so you can form an opinion of whether you’ll enjoy this story or not. I found it decadent, nihilistic, and very misanthropic. In short, I loved it! But I can see where some might think it over the top. In any event, the invention of language here is incredible.

"Have You Any Wool" by Alan DeNiro is a difficult read, divided into two distinct, round-robin styles. The story proper is told in second person. You are a cabiner aboard the Queen’s Gambit Declined who goes ashore in the Li Po islets to kill a wolf. You are assisted by the twins Pasiphae and Kyrie, as well as a narwhal nicknamed Jetty. The theme here is wolves and shepherds, of course. The other reoccurring narrative is pure infodump talking about the warping of space-time and the morphologies of folktales. There is one line that I especially liked: "More flesh-and-blood beings step into fables, armed with raconteur guns that shoot encoded, everchanging narratives, encased in super-light." Not that I fully understood it, but I liked the invention. However, a little goes a long way, and DeNiro goes overboard with the language. When he writes of "a series of metonymous parallaxes and chiads," I ended up shaking my head. I think I spent as much time Googling such locutions as I did reading this story, often to find he was playing a bit too fancy-free with the language.

So what is this story about? Outside of the wolf-shepherd motif, this is metafiction, fiction that analyzes the fictional process itself. One of the best known stories in this vein is John Barth’s "Lost in the Funhouse"; definitive postmodernism, it was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1967. In it, the story of a young boy’s visit to the funhouse is constantly interrupted by the author’s deconstruction, purposely showing the artificiality of the fiction process. Though a famous story, I do remember one critic saying that once this has been done you really can’t do it again. "How many times can you tear down the Eiffel Tower?" Even Barth wasn’t the first. Lawrence Sterne did it with Tristram Shandy back in 1759. As for "Have You Any Wool," despite the tremendous effort the author put into the narrative, as a speculative fiction story in 2006 it feels forced and old hat. A simpler style and a straightforward approach would’ve worked much better. I really wanted to get lost in the story, but the author’s pursuit of uniqueness kept getting in the way.

After the last two unconventional offerings, perhaps the editors thought a more traditional tale to be in order. "The End of the Road for Hybeth and Grinar" by Rachel McGonagill is pretty much summed up by its title. Hybeth and her mate, Grinar, have been on a quest for many years, and the story opens with them in a vast dungeon below the immortal City of Corrinth. After confronting the Pleasure Seeker, they are tricked and find themselves in a dark cavern where the walls talk. Soon they join up with all the other questors, and eventually they escape the cavern, confront the Pleasure Seeker, and find the answer to their quest. Though I found the ending satisfying, getting there was tedious, which is ironic since that’s what the quest is about. While not a bad story, this one does pale in comparison to the previous two. Also, I found the dialogue incongruous. Though no time period is ever given, "The End of the Road for Hybeth and Grinar" struck me as a period fantasy. And while I’m not suggesting that the author should have employed archaic dialogue like "thee" and "thou" and "methinks," I found some of the banter too contemporary.  Expressions such as "natch," "we’ve chatted it up," "call it quits," "we’ve messed up," and "it’s creepy" kept jerking me out of the moment. It wasn’t that I was expecting, "Dude, where’s my broadsword," but if there was a reason for these modernisms, I missed it.

Sometimes a writer will come up with a great idea and then fail to carry through with it, but in "The Rose War," K. D. Wentworth succeeds brilliantly. Perhaps she got the idea from the Plantagenet civil war in English history, and thought it might make an interesting story if the rose bushes themselves served as soldiers for their warring feudal lords. Though a rose is a symbol of beauty, its thorns do make it a pernicious entity, especially when its roots can mobilize it to join ranks and march upon the enemy. I won’t give you the specifics of this generational war and how bush and humankind eventually merge and threaten to overtaken the entire kingdom like encroaching weeds. It would only sound absurd. My suspension of disbelief was strained at first, but Wentworth is a fine writer. In a lesser writer’s hands, this would have been a disaster. Here, she tells a tale of true epic proportions.

"Choose Your Own Epic Adventure" by Marcus Ewert is just that, an interactive story where the reader determines the path the story follows. The first choice is to the character’s gender: male, female or intersexed. From there the reader is referred to one of twenty-eight sections, each fairly short and none of them sequential. The average section is around two hundred words, some a mere sentence. After choosing a gender, the reader is provided with two choices, and then each choice provides two more choices before each adventure concludes. I’m sure there are those who will follow each option to its final conclusion. To me, this is much like metafiction in that once you’ve done it, the novelty quickly wears off.

In "The Creation of Birds" Christopher Barzak tells of the Bird Woman who creates birds from the light of moons and stars that the Star Catcher sometimes brings her. The Birdwoman has hollow bones, and when she first learned to fly, her mother (who was the Bird Woman as well) worried about her. "The sky is not always filled with beauty," her mother warned. "Sometimes danger lingers there, like storms and lightning." Because she loves to fly, the daughter learned to dodge the lightning, and that was how she met the Star Catcher. He was pedaling through the sky in a mechanical contraption made of wire and leather.

The Bird Woman and the Star Catcher used to be lovers, but the Star Catcher is off collecting stars from the sky so often they’ve grown apart. Feeling lost and depressed, the Bird Woman goes to a psychoanalyst, and at the end of the session, the doctor gives her a bag to take home. Outside his office building, she opens the bag and finds his head inside. She pulls it out by his beard and he asks, "Are we home yet?"

In the opening scene, the Bird Woman is drawing a sparrow on a piece of parchment. When she returns home with the psychoanalyst’s head in hand, the sparrow tries to lift its head from the parchment. At the psychoanalyst’s suggestion, she feeds the sparrow a teaspoon of light from a captured star and endows it with the ability to sing by means of a violin.

Written in plain, matter-of-fact prose, the effect is still poetic. The imagery pulls the reader along. It doesn’t matter that little is explained or much is illogical. This story was nothing short of a delight. Barzak proves that surrealism not only lives, it soars.

In Meghan McCarron’s "The Rider," Lewis learns how his traveling companion, Nell, became telepathic, how she was sold by her father, taken to another world, and trained by priests to be used as a warrior in some war. Eventually, they end up in Las Vegas, have a few drinks, and Lewis goes back to L.A. while Nell stays behind to use her power to cheat at gambling.

While the scenes of them traveling and eating at diners did come alive, Nell’s otherworldly story is too vague. She says she was taken to the city of Halri, but not how—was it by spaceship, was she magically transported, or was it some other fantastical method? I wasn’t even sure it was another world at first. Also, Nell using her talent to cheat at gambling at the end left me dismayed. It was cool when Dustin Hoffman’s character did it in Rain Man, but in "The Rider" I saw it coming a mile away, was sure the writer wouldn’t go there.  But she did.

There is more to this story than this, but I don’t see how it’s epic. It’s a small story that hints at epic. According to McCarron’s blog, this story is a "sequel, mirror, or alternate iteration" to her tale in Strange Horizons, "Close To You," told from a completely different POV about Nell and her power. I liked the narrative of both these tales, but the overall storyline didn’t work for me. While a significant idea lurked at its core, it was never definitively brought to the surface.

In Stephen Eley’s "The Dinner Game" a nameless couple at a hotel restaurant acts out a narrative fantasy over dinner before going back to their room and making love. They pretend they are epic figures from the past, discussing their history in passionate terms. While this is a unique idea to frame a narrative around, I found it difficult to work up interest for a fictional couple pretending to be a fictional couple. While well written, I found myself skimming to get to the end. The fact that they were a presumably rich, soignée couple didn’t help. Sophistication in fiction is fine, but this was so refined as to make me somnolent.

"The Book of Ant" by Jon Hansen, like other offerings in this anthology, distinguishes itself by way of its unusual narrative structure. The reader follows the adventures of Ant through the ant world as she deals with Worm, the Queen, and other insects. This 3,000-word story is divided into ten short chapters, which is fine, but each paragraph is typically no more than a single sentence, and they are numbered like verses from the Bible. I learned to ignore the numbering, but more difficult to ignore was how half the sentences began with "and" for the first few chapters. The author admits to getting the idea from an old interview with Michael Moorcock where he states that many fantasy epics are written in a pseudo-King James style—sentences leading with "and" and "but" in order to create a sense of urgency. However, I found myself focusing on this stylistic eccentricity more than the story, which is a shame because the story is pretty good.

"The Muse of Empire’s Lost" by Paul Berger appears to be an earthbound fantasy at first, but it soon becomes clear that it’s set in deep space on an the orbital world of Sarasvati. There, Jemmi is an orphaned waif who runs off to Port-Town because she’s heard a ship has docked. She meets an ancient man, Yee, who recognizes they share the same psychic power, being able to influence others’ minds. Yee, recently arrived on the ship, asks for Jemmi’s assistance in his plan to rescue mankind by rebuilding the Cosmopolis. An odd man, this Yee, for though he appears to be in the service of humankind, he has regrettably killed his newly-acquired houseboy’s entire family in order to "simplify the household."

Despite its rocky beginning, this is a fine story. At first, I had difficulty envisioning the world from the author’s descriptions. I puzzled over whether Sarasvati meant the ancient river in Hindu text or the Hindu Goddess herself, then Jemmi communes with "Sara," leaving me confused. Eventually, it became clear that Sara is the hollow orbital Jemmi lives inside of, but it took nearly two thousand words for that to become apparent to me. This could’ve been set up better to avoid confusion. Tricky to do, I realize, since it appears Berger is trying to evoke a mythical feel at the beginning, though he does eventually write of outer space and moving toward the galactic rim. I also suspect he’s trying to show the world subjectively from Jemmi’s viewpoint. But I wish he had stated this unequivocally from the beginning. Nevertheless, this story remains an excellent read.

Ragnarok meets World War Two in David J. Schwartz’s "Five Hundred and Forty Doors." It is told in a folksy, first-person style by a nameless narrator, an eighty-two-year-old veteran murdered in his home.  Thrima the Valkyrie comes for him, and they ride her horse into the sky where he’s joined by a few of his old war buddies and dead friends from the past. This was a nice change of pace. Its light tone is amusing, and the world explored is marvelous. Not the best story here, but an enjoyable one.

One of the better novelettes in this collection is "Life Sentence" by Sandra McDonald. After surviving a massacre on Hill 402 during the Korean War, Frank Haynes comes home to what he assumes will be the prosperity of the Baby Boom years. But when he finds his father, a despicable real estate developer who molested Frank when he was a boy, had had an affair with Frank’s wife and gotten her pregnant, Frank kills him and hacks him into pieces. He is caught and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison, and when he gets out, he goes to the marsh where he buried his father. He finds his father’s Omega wristwatch, puts it on, and finds himself back in the fifties on the night of the murder.

This story is similar to Ken Grimwood’s excellent novel, Replay, which won the 1988 World Fantasy Award. The reader follows Frank’s repeated journey through life as he replays it again and again. While it has been done before, that in no way detracts from this story. Although Frank is a mean-spirited, politically incorrect, drunken cad, amazingly, the reader feels sympathy for him. It's uncanny how McDonald pulls that off. Perhaps it’s the existential black humor woven through the narrative. Perhaps it’s just her sheer storytelling ability. All I know is that I found this much more enjoyable than I should have, and the ending is poignant and satisfying.

"A Short History of the Miraculous Flight to Punt" by Jack Mierzwa is written in an experimental style using verse form, an odd formula, with footnotes and a bibliography at the end. Much is made of alchemy, Apollo, Galixeo Galixei, the Mirror of Andromeda, etc. I’m relatively sure Mierzwa didn’t write this piece to confound reviewers—though perhaps it’s a pleasant side effect—but that is one of its end results. I would like to tell you what this "story" is about. Really I would....

My favorite story in this collection is "Bound Man" by Mary Robinette Kowal. Ripped from the past while playing with her two children in her courtyard, legendary "warrior-god" Li Reiko finds herself six-thousand years in the future where she has been summoned to slay the Troll King. Halldór the warrior-priest has invoked her presence to save his lord, Duke Lárus, after bandits attack. Halldór agrees to become her bound man if she will save Lárus’s life with her healing power. But once that’s accomplished and she awakens back at their village, she refuses to fulfill her destiny and slay the Troll King. That is, until the trolls attack and take the village women hostage.

There’s a lot more to this fine story than that brief synopsis, but I don’t want to spoil it. Written in lucid prose, this tale has the true feel of an epic. And while it has a most satisfactory conclusion, I felt like I was reading the first chapter of a fast-paced novel getting off to an excellent start. I don’t know if the author has any intention of becoming a novelist, but I have no doubt she could. Kowal is a talent to watch.

Zoë Selengut tells a unique tale in her short-short "Smitten." Written in epistolary form, Marya writes to Hugo about how his cousin, Laurens, their mutual friend, has fallen in love with a statue. Ladies’ man Laurens is a bad divinity student who likes to drink, and one day when walking in the rain he literally runs (and falls) into the stone object of his desire. From there he makes much of proclaiming his love for this "God. Ess." as he calls her, and plans to found a city in her honor. Marya reminds him that he once told her she was a goddess too, but he replies that he was only trying to get her into bed. So Marya, a woman scorned, goes to Laurens’s atelier with chisel and hammer to settle the score.

I didn’t know what to make of this story at first. The idea of falling in love with a stone woman strained my suspension of disbelief, and the statue is kept off-stage for most of the story, which heightened my unease. However, in the end, this story has much to say about jealousy, putting someone on a pedestal, and the fragility of mind that many artist-types seem to have. Much absurdist fiction fails to deliver an insightful message, seemingly weird for weirdness’ sake. But Selengut’s tale resonates with the reader and, after Marya signs the letter recounting this episode, contains a deeper meaning. Quirky and enjoyable.

Ian McHugh shows his gift for elegant yet witty prose in "The Last Day of Rea." With the empire on the verge of siege and civil war in the offing, the Historian is summoned before the young King of Chahanesh. The Heretics want to parley, and the Historian, because of his skill with language, is the man for the task. But the Warlord of Imperial Chananesh takes the Historian aside, as he has other plans.

Despite its slow beginning, this fine tale ends up anything but. McHugh’s humor saves it with the Historian's cynical, yet darkly comical, sentiments. He has many derisive names for the young king, from "The Blessed Imbecile" to "He-Who-is-Excessively-Pampered" to "His Incestuousness"—as the royal family is quite inbred. My primary complaint is the shift in style. This tale opens with such plodding detail and a large cast of characters—all the courtiers, sycophants, slaves, and powers-in-contention in the king’s court—that it risks collapsing under its own weight. Then, when the Warlord takes the Historian aside, the humor stops, and the mood turns serious. The action at the end makes up for this, but the middle suffers from too much dialogue and the abrupt change in tone. Still, this is an enjoyable tale.

"Hopscotch" by Yoon Ha Lee is another story with an unconventional structure. Told in second person, it uses little hopscotch patterns like the chalk markings children draw on the sidewalk to set off each short section. It also employs a split column narrative in places. The first section begins with the number eight in the hopscotch pattern and works its way back to number one until all the spaces are filled. Those who like such fictional experiments will most likely enjoy this as Lee certainly writes evocatively enough, but those who don’t will probably read a bit and move on to the next.

Benjamin Rosenbaum’s "A Siege of Cranes" is a brisk and entertaining novelette that takes off running and never stops. After returning from a hunting trip to find his village burned and his wife and child dead, Marish sets out to discover who or what is responsible. After three days of starvation, he befriends a jackal-headed man named Kadath-Naan who has some odd beliefs about dying in battle and meeting his god. Kadath-Naab offends Marish with his threatening greetings, although to his way of thinking, he’s being nothing but cordial. Soon they arrive at the large village of Nabuz where all is mysteriously quiet as its inhabitants have been ensorcelled by the White Witch, the entity responsible for the destruction and Marish's quarry. Eventually, he finds a magical city where he barters a magic carpet from a djinn.  Rosenbaum’s powers of description shine as he depicts the White Witch's chariot. And that’s only the half of it.

"A Siege of Cranes" is an enjoyable story, but it’s not without its flaws. One improbable event followed the next, and, while in real life and especially in war, spontaneous events do happen randomly, with fiction,  a governing design is imperative. The sheer invention makes this tale stand out above the norm, but it isn't enough. Despite the weird sort of logic and resolution, I was a little overwhelmed by it. Moreover, I kept waiting for something deeper—not a heavy-handed moral, but maybe a little nugget at the end that sparked an epiphany in either the protag or the reader. Unfortunately, it never came.

"Epic, The" by Scott William Carter isn’t a story in the traditional sense, but a series of letters to the editors of Twenty Epics from the writer about why he’s behind on his deadline for the anthology and asking for an extension. Other letters follow of how he met a strange man in a park who has an epic adventure to tell, but he doesn’t have any writing ability and could Carter write the story for him? More letters follow as Carter goes to Tibet and reality comes unglued and misspellings in the narrative ensue. "I right to you frum India. I found Whitney. Isaac was rite.—Knowvenber 31, 2005." Out of all of the stories with unconventional narrative structures, this one came the closest to succeeding.

There are a few very good to perhaps great stories in this anthology. There are also a few that are experimental or avante-garde, most of which employ a non-linear structure or "weird form," for lack of a better term, which were my least favorite in this collection. While I can appreciate innovation, most of these seemed to be innovative for innovation’s sake, as if the story were an afterthought, a means of exhibiting the author's unique form. But if the presentation was removed, you’d have a story so flimsy it wouldn’t hold up. Consequently, I found myself paying attention to the novelty of the technique and not the story itself.

My favorite stories—"Cup and Table," "The Rose War," "The Creation of Birds," "The Muse of Empires Lost," "Life Sentence," "Bound Man," "Smitten," and "The Last Day of Rea"—employed more conventional narratives that relied on storytelling and character to convey the quintessential epic. Despite their more traditional structures, I found them brimming with creativity and revolutionary ideas, or just plain fun.

Publisher: All*Star Stories (July 2006)
Price: $19.25
Trade Paperback: 320 pages
ISBN: 1847280668 (9781847280664)